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Begin With a Job at a Startup, Then Start Your Own

Posted on the 06 March 2012 by Martin Zwilling @StartupPro

Mark-Zuckerberg-startup-schoolFor those of you who want to get in on the ground floor of a new venture, but haven’t yet worked up the nerve to start your own, begin with a job at a startup. But first you should ask yourself if you are prepared for the realities.

Working for a startup is not a career choice, but more of a lifestyle. The long-term opportunities may be large, but near-term paychecks will be small, compared to large companies in the same industry. Stock options, if you get them, won’t help you pay the mortgage for a least a couple of years, and the value then is totally unpredictable. Don’t even think about health and dental benefits for your spouse and kids.

So here’s a strategy I recommend (definitely the most common strategy in Silicon Valley). One family partner works for a startup, and the other sticks with a large enterprise company like Intel, HP, Apple, IBM, or Fujitsu. The large enterprise provides one stable income, an excellent set of benefits for the family, and that partner can get off work at 5pm to pick up the kids.

The other partner, and hopefully there is only one crazy one, goes after the startup lifestyle. Here are some approaches and considerations in finding a good fit with real odds of success:

  1. Check Craigslist. Most startups don’t have money for listing fees, so they pick this free service that is popular with the younger crowd. There are many other job boards and specialized services, as well as the local newspaper, so pick a couple and get busy.

  2. Start networking. People hire people they know, so nurture your relationship with friends already active in startups. They know the quality of work you can do, and they have friends in other startups. Skip the recruiting agents who hover in these networks – they don’t usually represent you well, and often antagonize the startups with aggressive selling.

  3. Visit venture capital websites. Most VCs list the startups they are funding, with pointers to their websites. The VC website may even directly list opportunities in the companies they support. Start here for a list of VC organizations. Same thing for Angel organizations.

  4. Peruse startup directories. There are multiple online sites, like the Startup Directory and VentureLoop, that you can browse by company name, region, or technology. Then you find someone you know in one of these companies, or polish your resume for submission to the startup websites advertising openings.

  5. Join local organizations. Every area has networking events, like the NYC Tech Meetup, and organizations like the Silicon Valley Forum. The more active you are in these, the higher the probability of finding opportunities early.

But a word to the wise, be picky about what startup you join. Ask around about the founders. Make sure you meet more than the boss and check the culture before you take the job. Reporting structures are fluid in startups, and unfortunately many startups are like dysfunctional families.

Make sure you believe in the product and the people. Here are some specific questions to ask:

  • How much money is in the bank?
  • What's the monthly burn rate?
  • When is the next round closing?
  • How many options are being offered (% of total)?
  • When do they expect to be cash flow positive?

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